Paula Deen and the Cooked Goose of American Culture

Paula Deen officially launched her Apology Tour re-boot on the Today Show.

A serious-looking Matt Lauer asked serious-sounding questions to a thrice warmed-over celebrity chef. He probed and prodded her about her character, her life and her use of “hurtful” language—also known as “the N-Word.”

The beleaguered belle was much obliged.

Ms. Deen offered up her tearful best to placate the masses and to salve the wounds inflicted on her business partners and brand identity.

And, sadly, this celebrity chef is gonna keep on apologizing as long as the media gives her airtime. Of course, the “news” media is gonna keep on blathering about her—as long as she keeps chumming their waters with her suddenly bleeding heart.

But the real question is not whether QVC will drop her or if her PR push will save her brand. Rather, the real question is why anyone cares about anything a celebrity chef has to say in the first place? And that’s the most troubling part of this tempest in a Hitler-looking teapot—that “celebrity chef” is a thing.

American “culture” and “society,” such as it is, has actually created dozens of “celebrity chefs.” We’re not talking about the latest incarnations of Julia Child—passionate advocates who are motivated to literally teach people how to cook.

Instead, we are talking about self-aggrandizing camera hogs who just want to be famous. People who want to become “a brand” and be “a personality” and get a TV show. People who want to get rich and be objects of our voyeuristic attention.

Celebrity chefs are now such a cultural phenomenon that Bloomberg TV actually sat them around a table and asked them: “What’s it like to be a Top Chef on TV?”

For those in search of empty calories, this celebrity-driven drivel is always on the menu at Food Network.

They made Paula Deen. And, by turning her Southern-fried lifestyle and oversized personality into a TV show, they turned adult-onset diabetes into a spectator sport.

When Food Network gave us Guy Fieri, it answered the question: What would it be like if Sammy Hagar drove a taco truck?

And when they launched their “Next Food Network Star” franchise they asked Americans the ultimate question: Don’t you want to be Paula Deen or Guy Fieri?

Really, doesn’t everybody want to know “what it is like” to be a “top chef” on TV?

Food Network has leveraged America’s celebrity obsession into an overcooked onslaught of personality-centered, competition-heavy programming. Frankly, the food is beside the point. They’ve co-opted the most elemental human endeavor—the preparation and eating of food—and turned it into a voyeuristic carnival sideshow of sword swallowers, fire eaters and self-promotional barking.

And “the people” just seem to eat it up. Last year, Food Network hit an all-time high of over 1.1 million viewers per night. That’s FOX News territory!

Michael Pollan, the Quixotic evangelist of preparing and eating actual food, points out that the average American now spends more time watching people cook on TV than they do cooking for themselves.

Perhaps the reason Americans prefer to watch celebrities cook and eat and talk about food is the simple fact that Americans are addicted to celebrity. Celebrities are the saints and demigods of American consumerism run amok. They are both consumer products and spirit guides, showing the way through the valley of social media darkness into a promised land of hype, attention and perceived relevance. Marx said religion is the opium of the people, but that was before television could transform people into a drug-like cult of grotesque personalities.

Whether it’s Honey Boo-Boo’s exploitative trashiness or Paula’s Bubba-licious food porn, shame is now passé and exposure is an end unto itself. The simple message of reality programming is that being on TV is its own transcendent reward. With two-thirds of Americans now living paycheck-to-paycheck, perhaps it is the only reward left on the dimming horizon of the American future.

In reality-themed America, the Horatio Alger story has been replaced by The Apprentice, The Biggest Loser and Survivor: Altoona. In the absence of any real progress in politics, economics, education or, it seems, even human evolution, the last hope for a growing population of also-rans is to dream about becoming famous.

And why not?

The incessant machinery of reality television has churned out celebrity duck hunters, pawn shop owners, fishermen, ice truck drivers and real estate agents. Even better (or worse), it has fixated on callow and shrill self-promoting D-Listers like the Kardashians, turning them overnight into full-fledged public figures. Without any talent, ability or even jobs, they have leveraged a sex tape into a virulent and inescapable brand of celebrity that not only rejects shame, but embraces it as a marketing strategy.

Of course, there is money to be made in this new shamelessness. But, as America becomes more polarized between an elite group of haves and teeming masses of have-nots, it seems that fame itself is the new American dream.

To wit, Forbes Magazine actually publishes an annual “List of The Most Powerful Celebrities.” As they make clear, “…our annual Celebrity 100 takes a stab at measuring that most ephemeral of riches: fame. Yes, we factor in celebrity earnings over the last 12 months, but we also tally how often each celebrity is mentioned in print and on TV, and gauge the strength of their Internet presence and how they’re viewed by a critical constituency: American consumers.”

Of course, Oprah is the “most powerful” celebrity. She made her career by providing a safe place for famous people to wallow in their ephemeral riches. But celebrity chef Rachel Ray and sex tape star Kim Kardashian also made the list—and, therefore, hope springs eternal.

Be comforted, American dreamers. Shame is the only thing standing between you and your arrival as a full-on cultural reference. So, make a sex tape. Try out for a reality competition. Transcend the plight of the anonymous. Maybe you are the next “Food Network Star.” Eventually, you can end up apologizing on the Today Show or, if your fall from grace is epic enough, genuflecting at Oprah’s altar of celebrity power.

If nothing else, you will be guaranteed the “ephemeral riches” of fame as you tally “celebrity mentions” across all media platforms. And you will have escaped the real world fate of millions of people who distract themselves and each other by clamoring to mention you first.

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'Paula Deen and the Cooked Goose of American Culture' have 6 comments

  1. June 27, 2013 @ 1:11 pm Tom O'Neill

    The most telling phrase here does seem to be that indulgence in celebrity culture is “perhaps the only reward left on the dimming horizon of the American future.” This compensation, that of living through the lives of those who are truly famous, may make easier the loss of density and identity, the dimming of the mystery of human existence and creativity, that is our real birthright.

  2. June 27, 2013 @ 10:28 pm mmdccbslm

    so very true. but racism has victims. I hope that is not lost in the telling of this story. she was more egregious than most are found to be and the facts are still coming out. let’s not lose sight of that.

  3. June 28, 2013 @ 9:43 pm Christie

    Oh, for Pete’s sake. What a lot of hot air for nothing. Whoever wrote this drivel seems to be as addicted to his own pompous and self-indulgent pontificating as any celebrity chef is to whatever it is they get out of it all. Give me a break.

  4. July 1, 2013 @ 7:42 am Edith Richman

    My mother had one knife, one pot and turned out wonderful food with no GMO’s or supermarkets. She bought her food from the pushcarts on our street, from the butcher next door (free bones for soup), from the dairy man accross the street. She knew the store owners and they knew her.

    We now live in an world where food is packaged,
    bagged, frozen or prepared with high fat and salt.

  5. July 4, 2013 @ 8:58 am Gina P.

    I thought this article was going to discuss Deen’s current troubles with her use of the N word and alleged mistreatment of her employees.

    I DO care when it appears that a person — famous or not — with some power over people’s lives (Deen has such power as an employer)is a racist.

    Her status as a “celebrity chef” is totally irrelevant.

  6. April 4, 2014 @ 7:10 pm Bill Jones

    It’s a fucked up culture deliberately kept that way.

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